Strike up a conversation with an Australian abroad and you’ll inevitably uncover a national quirk: the obsessive quest for a 'decent' coffee. It will usually be accompanied by disapproving tales of the watery/weak/burnt offerings that have crossed their path (unless of course you happen to be in Italy, where the tone may well be deferential).
Global chains like Starbucks were surprised when they failed to take root in Australian cities, seeming not to have noticed there was a fully formed coffee scene already in place and some very fussy customers to contend with. Coffee drinking is, in fact, a diehard national habit with real estate sold on its proximity to cafe strips; local baristas, roasters and an increasing number of growers have world class qualifications.
The start of an obsession
Rum was the country’s first favourite beverage, though it was soon usurped by tea; it wasn’t until the 1920s that Russian refugees such as Ivan Repin opened coffee shops that rapidly popularised brewed coffee and take-home beans.
Repin is credited with paving the way for the espresso onslaught of the 1950s. As Italian migrants arrived in numbers to Australia, prized stove-top coffee makers and the odd Gaggia were often stashed in their suitcases. Roasting businesses, distribution networks and Italian-style cafes soon followed.
Melbourne’s Pellegrini’s restaurant (66 Bourke St, Melbourne) is an ever-enchanting survivor of this generation. The brew in their signature Duralex glasses may be unremarkable, but the Italian brio, urban bonhomie and original décor are as authentic as it gets.
As the inner city neighbourhoods rapidly gentrified in the early 1980s, Sydney’s Bill & Toni’s (74 Stanley St, East Sydney), The Arch (81 Stanley St, East Sydney) and Tropicana (227B Victoria St, Darlinghurst) – all still serving up flat whites and focaccia – lured a new generation who claimed cappuccino-drinking as its own.
Italy’s Lavazza coffee began its export business in Australia around this time, a whole decade before chancing it in UK and US markets, while local outfits like Melbourne’s Genovese and Grinders, and Brisbane’s Merlo (Ann St, Brisbane) became household names.
Next generation coffee: where to get the full experience
While the original family-run roasters still prosper, and most of Australia remains content with a simple latte or short black (perfectly made, of course), the cities are now in the grip of coffee’s third wave: single origin beans, premium small batch roasts, terroir and alternative brewing methods such as the Clover syphon, filter and cold drip. They’re part of a global phenomenon that includes Chicago’s Intelligentsia, Seattle’s Caffé Vita and Oslo’s Tim Wendelboe: it’s the era of the micro-roastery.
In a Melbourne warehouse conversion that wins in the sustainability as well as style stakes, Seven Seeds (106 Berkeley St, Carlton) is also part cafe, part retail outlet and part instructional facility with a mission to 'relentlessly' pursue coffee excellence. The city’s Sensory Lab (297 Little Collins St) ratchets up the science; white-coated staff will analyse customers' palates before recommending a single origin or blend.
Sydney’s booming Single Origin (60-64 Reservoir St, Surry Hills) has a Surry Hills flagship that’s the favoured pitstop for the local creative industries, with tables spilling out onto the footpath and across the street. They uniquely offer a small batch version of Australia’s other much loved brew – pale ale.
Cup Specialty Coffee (85 Russell Street) in Brisbane’s West End sources seasonal and traceable green coffee and still roasts it on-site in view of its cafe, fitted out to play to the light industrial setting and the owner’s DIY ethos. Gold Coast stalwarts, Crema Espresso (27 Tedder Av), have been roasting on the coast for years.
And as Queensland and Northern NSW’s coffee industry grows, expect Brisbane and Byron Bay’s roasters to be proudly using local beans too.
All the cafes you can handle and more in Lonely Planet's guide to Australia